The Best “Per-Page” Books

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Non-Fiction  

Because the criteria is “per-page,” many of the non-fiction books I’ve chosen are very systematic. They tend to describe/explain how one or more system(s) work. This is so valuable because understanding a system is like having a big lever—it allows you to do more with less. A book like Shadow Divers is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read, but doesn’t pass the “per-page” filter I am after in this post. For this list, “conceptual” beats “narrative.”

Impro by Keith Johnstone

This book gets top billing because you probably haven’t read it (or heard of it). It is about the theatre, which I know sounds awful. I hate the theatre, yet still place Impro atop this list. The book explores how to be more creative, why traditional education is a creativity killer, and how all of our interactions with other people are mini-status games. Each of these three sections/ideas has changed the way I act or think about the world.

Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

The book that sparked this whole idea. Imagine spending an entire lifetime studying a writing about history. The Durants did just that, which resulted in several million (beautifully written) words. Those millions of words were themselves a distillation of human history. Now take those millions of words and distill them down again to 30,000-40,000 words. Then you have Lessons of History. Just buy it.

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

Satire is often the fastest way to convey a truth. The definitions in this book are gleeful. Here are a few examples of how potent they can be:

CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him

POLITICIAN, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When we wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive

OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man—who has no gills

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Everyone may have already tackled this one, but it belongs on the list.

Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu

A qualification: the wisdom in this book is only accessible if you are ready for it. It wasn’t until my 10th reading or so—after hundreds of other books/essays/lectures on the topic, tons of experimentation with meditation, and a full immersion in eastern philosophy—that it finally shook me to my core.

Reflections on the Art of Living by Joseph Campbell

Like Lessons of History, this is a “best of” from one of the most curious minds of the last 100 years.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

Meta, I know.

Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins

The ultimate book on business communication.

Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Taught me how to live.

Essays and Aphorisms OR The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer

Ditto

The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts

Most of Watts’s books would qualify for this list, but this one is my personal favorite.

Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham

I’m cheating a bit here, because this book by Graham only contains some of his many brilliant essays. If I had to pick just one essay, it would be What You Can’t Say.

Tragedy and Hope: a History of the World in Our Time by Carroll Quigley

The longest and most dense book on the list, but holy cow can Quigley sum something up, like this on the agricultural revolution:

“Agricultural activities, which provide the chief food supply of all civilizations, drain the nutritive elements from the soil. Unless these elements are replaced, the productivity of the soil will be reduced to a dangerously low level. In the medieval and early modern period of European history, these nutritive elements, especially nitrogen, were replaced through the action of the weather by leaving the land fallow either one year in three or even every second year. This had the effect of reducing the arable land by half or one-third. The Agricultural Revolution was an immense step forward, since it replaced the year of fallowing with a leguminous crop whose roots increased the supply of nitrogen in the soil by capturing this gas from the air and fixing it in the soil in a form usable by plant life. Since the leguminous crop which replaced the fallow year of the older agricultural cycle was generally a crop like alfalfa, clover, or sainfoin which provided feed for cattle, this Agricultural Revolution not only increased the nitrogen content of the soil for subsequent crops of grain but also increased the number and quality of farm animals, thus increasing the supply of meat and animal products for food, and also increasing the fertility of the soil by increasing the supply of animal manure for fertilizers. The net result of the whole Agricultural Revolution was an increase in both the quantity and the quality of food. Fewer men were able to produce so much more food that many men were released from the burden of producing it and could devote their attention to other activities, such as government, education, science, or business. It has been said that in 1700 the agricultural labor of twenty persons was required in order to produce enough food for twenty-one persons, while in some areas, by 1900, three persons could produce enough food for twenty-one persons, thus releasing seventeen persons for nonagricultural activities.”

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Perennial Classics) by Eric Hoffer

The “formula” behind mass movements. For the would be leaders of new mass movements out there, here is the formula: frustrated people + vague but near-term hope + a common enemy (devil).

Fiction

Most of my favorite fiction books are long. These are shorter and pack a high per-page-punch.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I remember the train I was on when I read this. I remember what music was playing on my iPod. So, so good.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Same. Amazing short read.

Dune by Frank Herbert

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain”

Incredible book.

Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

There is a little phrase from Foundation that I keep pinned up everywhere: “past glories are poor feeding.” I think that is such a wonderful expression. It reminds me about the dangerous of pride and “achievement,” and helps me maintain a growth mindset.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve never more identified with a character than Larry in The Razor’s Edge. I loved every page.

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So what would be on your list? Leave suggestions in the comments below.